Over the course of nine months in 2009 and 2010, six Palo Alto teenagers committed suicide. Between 2010 and 2014, an average of 20 children and young adults killed themselves annually in Santa Clara County, where Palo Alto is located.
The deaths in the city constitute two recent “suicide clusters” (multiple suicides within a short time frame); there are an average of five in the entire country each year. Having two in the same city in less than a decade is extremely rare.
The suicide clusters raises concerns in the Asian American community and attracted the attention of mental health professionals here because 40 percent of the victims have been Asian American. In Palo Alto Unified School District, over 40 percent of students identify as Asian.
The students died on the tracks, but also by hanging and jumping off a roof or overpass. Each time it happened, their classmates mourned them, and their distraught parents sought answers.
In response to what Santa Clara County officials have called an urgent public health problem, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is launching an epidemiological study on teen suicide in the area. A team of suicide prevention specialists arrived in Santa Clara a week ago for a two-week site visit.
In November 2014, the CDC conducted similar research in Fairfax, Va., and found “multiple risk factors,” including high expectations for students, parental pressure on students for success and parental denial of mental health issues among their children. It found that 72 percent of youth suicides exhibited mental health problems.
Community members hope that the study will yield responses to the question that has plagued them for the past seven years, when the first suicides began: If these kids had everything they needed to succeed, why were so many choosing to or contemplating giving up on life altogether?
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In “The Problem With Rich Kids,” published by Psychology Today in November 2013, former Yale psychologist Suniya Luthar noted that social, emotional and behavioral issues are as prevalent in the wealthy end of the socioeconomic spectrum as they are on the poor end.
She said that, on average, rich offspring experience serious levels of depression and anxiety at twice the national rates.
“The evidence all points to one cause underlying the different disturbances documented: pressure for high-octane achievement,” Luthar wrote. “The children of affluent parents expect to excel at school and in multiple extracurriculars and also in their social lives. … It plays out in crippling anxiety and depression, about anticipated or perceived achievement ‘failures.’”
(Ed Diokno writes a blog :Views From The Edge: news and analysis from an Asian American perspective.)
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